I must admit to a sense of emptiness at the way this series has been played out. I must also admit to being hugely excited before it began.
A very good team in home conditions was going to take on a team, the only team, that travelled well in contemporary cricket. I was excited about a young Indian captain who played cricket for the right reasons and who genuinely respected the game. I was excited about a young Indian batting side and an off-spinner who I thought was moving into the top drawer of international cricket. I was excited at the prospect of seeing two modern greats whose dignity adorns our game. And I was excited about seeing one of the great fast bowlers of our game adapt to life with a little less speed.
There was so much to look forward to. If you love Test cricket, if you are enamoured by its intricacy, if you are searching for thrilling sub-plots, if you are searching for an attack and a riposte, if you love resilience and the joy of overcoming, then India vs South Africa in India would be at the top of your list.
But the emptiness is gnawing away. Yes there has been good cricket. AB de Villiers at Mohali and in Bengaluru was thrilling. The classic off-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin has been something to savour. Morne Morkel in Nagpur, Hashim Amla in the first innings at Mohali, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara with their old-style batting, Ravindra Jadeja here there and everywhere… Yes there has been good cricket. But the tracks have been this huge cloak of gloom that shrouds everything. The pitches have spoilt the series.
I am a huge believer in home advantage. Every sport has it and countering it and winning away is one of the great achievements in sport. Indeed, that is why the cricket world admires South Africa so much. And so for pitches to favour the home team is perfectly acceptable. Within that home advantage, though, resides a certain nobility. At its core, cricket is a contest that gives both teams the opportunity to win, that allows batsmen and bowlers their moments in the sun and then lets the team that uses the changing conditions better to win the game. It is fine for tracks in England and New Zealand to encourage seam movement, for those in Australia and South Africa to favour those that employ bounce, and it is perfectly all right for pitches in India to be slow and favour spin. But bat and ball, and host and guest, must both feel they can win.
Mohali was disappointing and Nagpur has been dire. I remember the outrage we felt at the trampoline in Durban in 1996 and the lawns in New Zealand in 2002. We in India were convinced those were unacceptable, and we were right. By the same argument these pitches, especially this one in Nagpur, should be frowned upon too. They are not good for cricket and they are certainly not good for Indian cricket.
That India should want to win at home is undeniable. That India should want to play to its competitive advantage is good tactics. And so preparing turning tracks is not a crime. But the ball cannot do on the first morning what it should late on the third day. If the surface comes off on the first day, if the first half hour sees puffs of dust, it does not produce competitive cricket. Worse still, it tells the world that India can only win under a specific set of circumstances. And that, I believe, should disappoint good cricketers.
The joy of winning emerges out of a challenge. As a bowler, when you have outwitted a worthy opponent, as a batsman when you have countered the conditions to score runs. But these pitches, like in the fable of the fox and the crane, are like inviting a guest to a meal he can’t partake of. The win is set up for you, there is no joy of overcoming. In the long run, this will hurt Indian cricket because it will take away the ability to adapt, to think and to overcome. In preparing these pitches, you have told your cricketers you don’t have enough confidence in them to win any other way. If I was a proud professional, I would be disappointed if my producer thought I could only work under certain conditions.
And it doesn’t help to point fingers elsewhere. To say they did it so we must. The first principle we learnt in sport was that good pitches produce good cricket. More important, good pitches produce good cricketers. And so, by inference, bad pitches will produce limited cricketers and help meet short term ends. There have been many bad pitches in the Ranji Trophy too, and that is why I hope the BCCI goes after these with ferocity.
Beyond this series, beyond this immediate result is a greater reality. Bad pitches might produce short-term results but will harm Indian cricket in the long run.
This Indian team is good enough to win on better pitches. They must be allowed to.